How intelligent virtual agents (IVAs) are impacting customer service

We are increasingly using our smart devices to help us with everyday tasks to make our lives easier and more convenient. Some even think about them as personal friends, and refer to their smart devices as ‘she’ when talking about them. Whether or not you have a habit of doing this, there’s no doubt that we are increasingly speaking with them in ordinary, everyday tones. Smart devices are now at the centre of our lives in everything we do, and more and more we are seeing interactions with them through voice.

Consumers have quickly adapted to getting help from their personal virtual agents, and this of course has been relayed into the world of retail. Recent research suggested that voice transactions in the UK will be worth £3.2bn by 2022. Consumer demand is always changing, and the pandemic has accelerated the process. Many physical stores having been closed for the most part of a year, and businesses are having to rely on digital transactions. As contact centres have now become the new front door for businesses, it is more important than ever that brands stay up to date on exactly what their customers want, and they expect service across more channels.

This is where Intelligent Virtual Agents (IVAs) are here to help, able to manage demand in ways almost indistinguishable from an interaction with a human agent.

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Automation that’s available 24/7

IVAs are available at any time of the day, providing a great deal more flexibility to how traditional customer services are done on a 9-to-5 basis. The automated, self-service applications offer capabilities that are similar or an add-on to human service and support agents, meaning they operate at a much lower cost too. This frees up time for human agents to concentrate on much more urgent and complex customer enquiries.

Virtual agents can understand human speech in over 100 languages and respond using text-to-speech (TTS) that – if it is done right – is almost indistinguishable from a human agent. IVAs can be configured with very basic skills. The most basic agent might simply answer the phone, ask the caller if she wants to maintain her place in the queue and schedule a call-back. An advanced agent might have the skills to understand human speech in multiple languages, determine intent using natural language processing (NLP), process PCI-complaint payments, and respond in multiple languages over the phone, via chat or SMS.

Contact centre agents are always busy and many of the routine calls can easily be resolved without human agents. Automation can help by answering basic inquiries to reduce average wait times for customers during busy hours, all whilst delivering a more human experience – that isn’t actually human.

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How does an Intelligent Virtual Agent work?

IVAs use the latest integrated technology to offer a wide variety of self-service capabilities, using speech recognition and TTS in hundreds of languages, along with a wide variety of voices.

Dealing with queries swiftly and efficiently in contact centres means ensuring integration between technology and agents. With Interactive Voice Response (IVR), inbound calls to the contact centre can be controlled and managed through scripts and collect data, such as the issue they need help with. They can then offer a wide variety of self-service capabilities. It may start with asking the caller, “how can I help you today?”, and by using NLP the virtual agent is able to respond to these open-ended prompts, enabling the business to automate tasks that were previously too cumbersome to be handled using speech recognition.

Then, the information is collected and transferred back through the system so that the task can be completed. For example, if the call needs to be passed to a live agent, the IVA can receive data that enables it to determine into which queue to place the call. The customer’s call, along with the contextual information collected by the virtual agent, will then be transferred to a live agent, who will have everything they need to solve the query.

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Virtual assistance that understands you

Natural language processing (NLP) uses AI to give machines the ability to read, understand and derive the meaning from human interactions and makes it easier for customers to get the support they need.

Using automated systems through intent matching, entity extraction and dialogue control, the complexity of interactions is dramatically simplified. It means it increases the percentage of enquiries that can be automated, helping to reduce costs and also eliminates complex IVR menus. Businesses who utilise virtual assistants can apply applications for whatever service they want to give to their customers, whilst saving valuable time and costs.

Imagine a caller wants an update on their order – a common and time-consuming problem for a contact centre. A virtual agent which includes IVR capabilities can provide customers with a 24-hour-a-day helpline to query order status, saving time and providing routine customer service with minimal costs. Callers can also reset passwords, make credit card payments and book another time to receive a call-back – all whilst never actually talking to a real person.

With digital solutions a necessity in order to stay connected during the pandemic, our relationship with and acceptance of technology has changed. As it becomes more deeply ingrained in our everyday lives, people are becoming accustomed to asking virtual assistants for help. Driving customer loyalty begins with a great experience. It leads to higher customer satisfaction and as consumer demand shifts, contact centres need to be at the centre, providing customers with timely and efficient services to meet their needs. By reducing the number of routine calls live agents take, they can prioritise those who need more urgent help, improving customer engagement. It all begins with IVAs who can deliver a more human experience – while not being human at all.

Written by Brian Atkinson, general manager and vice-president EMEA at Five9

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